April 11, 2005: The inaugural World Touring Car Championship, which has lifted touring car racing to the same level as Formula One and the World Rally Championship, got underway at the weekend (9-10 April 2005) in Italy, with race honours split between the two top teams, BMW and Alfa Romeo. Alfa Romeo went into the race the favourites, after a dominating first practice two weeks ago at the historic Monza track. But conditions for Round One - cold and bleak - were very different and after the cancellation of Friday's practice due to the funeral of The Pope, BMW's Dirk Muller clinched pole position on Saturday for the first of the two races in round one of the 2005 WTCC.
Dirk Muller went on to make history, capitalising on his pole position and claiming the first race win of the FIA World Touring Car Championship. With a dry track and confidence in his car, Dirk drove a solid race.
While the BMW driver edged away from the rest of the pack, there was a riveting battle for third place. Andy Priaulx made several attempts to overtake Alfa Romeo's Farfus, creating some nail biting moments. But strong defensive driving from the Brazilian ensured that the 2004 FIA ETCC champion couldn't find a gap that would have given him a spot on the podium. Team Alfa Romeo took both second and third place in front of an enthusiastic Italian crowd of more than 40,000, with Tarquini finishing 2.465 seconds behind Dirk.
"In the first race Dirk was too quick for us and we did not manage to keep his pace," said Gabriele Tarquini. "The second race looked promising, despite that I did not have a good start. I was moving up, but when I tried to overtake Dirk at Lesmo he pushed me off."
Augusto Farfus agreed with his team mate. "In the first race it was difficult to keep close to the BMW cars. In the second race I made a mistake and lost track on the first corner. The championship is long. We have a good car and a good team. I'm sure that like last year it will be decided in the last race of the last round."
Garcia, who started second on the grid, has had a bad start of the day. He damaged his car during the warm up session this morning but the BMW Team Italy-Spain ensured the car was repaired in time for the green lights. Lap three saw more difficulties for the Spaniard as Farfus nudged him of the track during an overtaking manoeuvre. Garcia skilfully kept the car under control, rejoined the race and kept on the pace to finish in a positive fifth position.
Throughout the whole race the three SEAT Sport drivers were in a close fight with Alfa Romeo's men Giovanardi and Thompson, and eventually Rydell finished eighth, just ahead of Gene, to claim the final point.
The Ford Hotfiel Sport team have had a challenging weekend with engine problems and difficulty finding the pace. Klenke retired on lap 5 again with engine problems, while his team-mate Jäger was involved in a collision with Menu's Chevrolet. Chevrolet is also a team that have work to do to make it to the podium but all three cars finished the race, with Huff as their fastest driver.
Marc Hennerici, the Wiechers-Sport man, claimed maximum points for the Michelin Independent Drivers' Trophy crossing the line a superb 13th overall.
Alessandro Zanardi who was in great demand by the Italian fans at an autographing session earlier in the day took tenth overall, making him the winner of the Italian Superturismo, his first win after returning to competition after a horrific accident in Champ Cars.
"It's nice to hear my national anthem and to taste the champagne again," said Alessandro Zanardi "But despite nationality or what cars are being driven, my aim is to beat as many drivers as I can. I would like to congratulate the podium drivers because they had a superb battle. From my seat it was like being in a theatre. It is a pity that I didn't have that extra tenth of a second to enhance my performance but am very satisfied that I was able to keep up with the cars in front of me for almost the entire race. With a few improvements and a little luck we could have a day even better than this one. Let's say, I started on the right foot!"
In Race Two It was Alfa Romeo driver James Thompson's turn to take command of the spectacular race in front of a huge crowd and crossed the finish line ahead of his FIA World Touring Car Championship rivals.
Thompson, who started the second race in second place, overtook Rydell (who was on pole on the top-eight reverse grid) at the start and managed to hold on to the lead for the duration. However, it was by no means an easy ride to success - with winner of race one, Dirk Muller edging closer and closer as the laps were counted down. Thompson finished 0.530 seconds ahead of Dirk's BMW 320i.
At the start Giovanardi stalled the engine from the second row. Rydell started on pole but was swiftly overtaken by the eventual race winner, Garcia and Dirk, before crashing during lap two after Farfus hit him from behind. This was clearly a disappointment for the SEAT Sport Team but their Spanish driver, Gené, gained valuable points by finishing in 6th place.
The fight for the win turned into a war halfway through the race. After Rydell went off, Colciago crashed at Lesmo on lap 5. One lap later another collision eliminated De Lorenzi and Huff. Garcia was chasing Thompson, but he made a mistake and lost three positions. At the beginning of the 6th lap, the leading pack arrived at the first chicane and all six drivers - Thompson, Dirk, Farfus, Tarquini, Garcia and Priaulx - tried to brake as late as possible. Thompson cut across the grass, Farfus ran wide, while Dirk and Tarquini clashed; the Italian collected the worst of it and crashed.
In the final lap Garcia managed to keep third place despite a final assault from Jörg Muller, who had recovered from 29th on the grid.
It was another excellent performance from the independent driver, Mark Hennerici. He took 10th position in his BMW, an improvement of 3 places from his finish in the first race. Chevrolet too made progress in the second of the races with Nicola Larini claiming a very encouraging 15th place. Zanardi was again the quickest of the Italian Superturismo drivers and is clearly also a presence in the FIA WTCC as he finished seventh overall.
"The second race was fantastic," says James Thompson. "I was disappointed with the first one but I knew the car was good and I wanted to benefit from the reverse grid for the second. Finishing 7th in the first race was not necessarily a bad thing. I planned to concentrate hard and get a good start which I did. It was very important that I passed Rydell early on and got a bit of a gap but it didn't go quite according to plan as Dirk was behind me for most of the race. I think it was a fantastic show and I'm sure everyone will agree that we could not have asked for a better start to the new WTCC!"
The second round of the WTCC takes place in France at the Magny-Cours track on 1 May 2005.